Pandemic Causes Coffee Klatches to Vanish, Hurting Small Businesses

Apr 10, 2020
Originally published on April 13, 2020 7:15 am

Family-owned restaurants and coffee shops are more than places for buying a meal or a cup of joe.  In small towns, they’re often places where people catch up with one another. The coronavirus pandemic has changed that and has left some businesses struggling to keep the doors open.

The Old Dairy is one such place in downtown Macomb.

“We are prepping a lot less, sanitizing a lot more, and then just kind of doing our best every day,” said co-owner Emily Gamage.

“We’re ordering way more paper goods than food at the moment. Our trucks are a quarter of what they usually are. So we’re not going through food very fast. We’re going through paper boxes very fast.”

Gamage said people are still ordering meals, but the pandemic has decreased business dramatically. The Old Dairy has started offering delivery and curbside service, both of which they had not done before. And she said the restaurant now has a breakfast rush and a lunch rush with nothing in-between.  

She said that’s not the way the business was before. 

“People will come and hang out. It’s a meeting place. You come here to socialize. You don’t come here just to grab a bite and leave. So the happiness is kind of in hanging out with your friends,” Gamage said.

The restaurant also has a back room where local organizations hold breakfast or lunch meetings. Gamage said that was a big part of the business and the room was booked just about every day.

Gamage has owned The Old Dairy with her husband Mark for almost nine years. This is their only source of income. She hoped people will continue ordering carryout and delivery meals so the business can tough it out during the statewide ban on large gatherings.  

The story is different just a couple blocks away. The owner of Sullivan-Taylor Coffeehouse decided to suspend operations.

“It’s not an easy decision. But it’s one at the moment we felt we had to make,” said Dan Lewis.

He said it was an especially difficult decision because they were about to celebrate the coffeehouse’s 25th anniversary in June.

Lewis said there is not enough money coming in right now to cover payroll, the mortgage, and other expenses.  In addition, he wants to ensure the safety of customers and employees.  He said many of his young workers don’t have insurance.

“We never had enough money to be able to afford insurance for them.  And they were very concerned about getting the virus and not having insurance to take care of them. And so they want to practice social distancing, which we totally understood,” he said.

Lewis said that for now, he and his wife can get by on her state pension.  He has not decided whether to re-open once the pandemic passes, though it is their intention to celebrate the upcoming anniversary.

Lewis said his business -- like The Old Dairy -- was a social gathering spot where everyone from junior high school group to retirees would gather.  He has fond memories of customers from through the years, including Barack Obama, who stopped in the coffeehouse while he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

“He came into the building and shook our hands and then went through the entire group of people and shook everybody’s hands,” Lewis said. He added the late Republican State Representative Rich Myers of Colchester came into the shop on a regular basis to say hello and meet people.

Lewis planned to take advantage of the shutdown by painting the shop, sanding the old maple wood floors, and completing other projects that can’t be done while the business is open and serving beverages and food.

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